It's Tough Not Being One of the Guys
By Lisa Bergson
"You do not seem comfortable in Asia," said H.T. Tan, managing director of Quest, our independent sales rep firm in Singapore, from the right-side driver's seat of his Audi. We drove from the luxurious, newly affordable Four Seasons Hotel to his office last week with his wife, Lim Lay Keng, sitting behind us. Taken aback, I paused. It would have been interesting to explore his reasoning, but I decided it was wiser to shift the focus off me.
"I don't feel uncomfortable, but I would be lying if I said I felt like I belong here," I replied. If only H.T. -- for "high tension," as he puts it -- knew how much better this trip is going than my first visit to East Asia several years ago. On my own and fighting a bad case of the flu, I made my way to Tsinchu, Taiwan's center for semiconductor fabrication, only to find that the president of our local rep, V-Tek, had no intention of introducing me to any of our local customers. "But why did you tell me to come?" I asked, after a wasted afternoon sitting in a conference room waiting to meet him.
He replied evenly, "I thought you wanted to see the museum and sightsee." I reviewed our correspondence and conversations, finding no reference to such a desire on my part -- or a similar suggestion on his. Exhausted after a sleepless night in a bug-ridden room, I got a ride back to the airport with one of V-Tek's sales guys. "Why doesn't Albert want me to see customers?" (He was just a kid, so I figured I could get him to talk.)
"You need to send a sales engineer or a technical guy to see customers," he told me.
"But you take the other company presidents to see customers." This I knew for a fact. "It's because I'm a woman!"
"Yes-no!" He grew flustered and embarrassed, just a kid trying to get by.
Rather than press the issue, I headed home and spent four days in bed, vowing never to return to the region. They want guys, I can send guys. I'd already fought hard enough to prove myself back home without having to start all over again in Asia.
Since then, however, we've opened our own Asian office in Singapore, MEECO Asia-Pacific PTC, to handle sales and service in the region. Between that and the need to promote our new technology to the Asian market, I had to go. This time I was accompanied not just by our debut product, the MTO-1000-H2O, which uses lasers to measure parts-per-trillion levels of moisture in gas, but also by our director of laser analysis, Dr. Wen-Bin Yan, whose technical knowledge and Chinese fluency proved invaluable. "I hope I don't bore you," he said when I encouraged him to conduct his presentations in Chinese.
"You're not here to entertain me," I reminded him. "You're here to sell!"
I also have another secret weapon, Asia for Women in Business, an extremely helpful book by Tracey and Patricia Wilen. It has given me a much better sense of how I do, and do not, fit in. They write: "It is still difficult for many Asian men to make the leap where you become both a business partner and a woman." I realize that, as an American woman executive, I am at the crossroads of gender and power, a kind of economic transvestite.
To establish my bona fides as something other than a decorative absentee owner, who merely inherited her MEECO title from her father, I found myself acting even more assertively than usual. I personally handled the termination of one of our Singaporean staffers, insisted on presenting Wen-Bin at every customer meeting and seminar, and expected -- and received -- deference from our reps and customers as an executive. I was so strong, I hardly recognized myself.
At the same time, the women I met seemed so foreign. Their behavior was a constant reminder of our second-class status in Asia. In restaurants, the waitresses served me after the men. (Nonetheless, my male hosts waited graciously for me to sample each dish before eating themselves.) At our Singapore rep's office, a young saleswoman with a tiny sliver of a body, hair dyed reddish orange, and lipstick resembling a purple oil slick, had the disconcerting habit of giggling after each statement. Stop undercutting yourself, I wanted to say but didn't.
"I like your shoes," she said of my slingback Manolo Blahniks. "Are they very expensive?"
H.T.'s wife, Lim, who appeared poised and competent as they come, recoiled at any mention of business. Squealing and covering her face with her hands, she cried, "No, no, no, I leave that to my husband. No business, not for me. It's too complicated!" Although she is only a year older than me, she reminds me of my favorite aunt, an intelligent women who never followed her Harvard-bound brothers to college. "Find a good husband," was her mother's firm advice.
Lim and I compared notes: "I like a calm, simple life. My husband gives me that," she explained, describing her humble home.
"I like more adventure," I told her. "But my home is also modest." (Home, yes. Closet, no.)
NO TIME FOR FLOWERS.
Like V-tek's Albert Hong, H.T. was more inclined to show me the botanical gardens than to take me on customer calls. The Wilens find that "Asian men born before 1950 still retain many of the traditional attitudes, whereas men born later tend to be much more receptive to women in business." HT seemed convinced that I'd rather shop or look at orchids. I tried to placate him: "When I return, I'll stay for the weekend so we can sightsee. But now I need to see customers."
While I may not feel exactly comfortable adjusting to chopsticks and squat toilets in places where I don't know the language, I do feel confident in my purpose. This time I'm operating not just under the auspices of MEECO but those of my very own company, Tiger Optics. Over the past several years, I've traveled widely to promote this venture. In the course, I've become an entrepreneurial woman, doing what I do where I belong.
Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies web sites at www.meeco.com or www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org